Author signatures and inscriptions seem rather common these days. Behind most title pages there are author tours, book signings, readings, the authorial laying on of hands at book festivals and the blessings of bookshops and libraries. Then again, perhaps it is just a question of scale. Authors in the past no doubt employed their fountain pens just as fervently when faced with pristine fresh printed stacks of hardcover books. Booksellers and bookbuyers, hovering expectantly, no doubt had their moments in time with a celebrated author. One hopes.
Placement of signatures and inscriptions vary like styles. Front free endpapers, title pages, half-title pages, dedication pages have all been used by authors. I find when authors strike out their printed name on the title page and then inscribe their signature beneath in flowing liquid ink, it is rather like an act of existential defiance, as if reclaiming identity from the machine and its machine ways. Authors who hide their signatures on half-title pages intrigue me. Those who go further inland and lay their touch on dedication pages may well have something of the trickster about them. The front free endpaper, however, does not bode well as a place for signing. Too vulnerable. Like being left on the stoop in the rain. Perhaps these authors are extrovertedly adventurous and carefree. Motorcycle drivers and fans of the mountain's edge.
The late and multi-talented author Paul Quarrington was fond of playful line drawings to accompany his artistic flourish. That of Alice Munro, simple and straightforward on the title page. William Gibson, large looping flourishes with occasional dots and underlinings on half-titles. The diversity in this realm is fascinating.
I remember a book that was donated to the library I worked for by one of the Molson family. A wonderful older volunteer had worked for the Senator Molson and she was instrumental in getting book donations from his sons. This book on the Montreal Canadians was a birthday gift and it was signed by all the great Montreal Canadian hockey players, Béliveau, Richard, Cournoyer, Lemaire, and on and on, and each signature revealed exquisite penmanship. Catholic schools of the day truly taught fine penmanship. Through the volunteer I inquired whether it was mistaken donation, such a personal gift that it was, but I was told that he had many other items and it was not a mistake. I had hoped the Library would use it for a fundraising item, but having left the library I don't know of its fate. But certainly an interesting inscribed volume.
Inscriptions and association copies are always of interest, even from lesser known and forgotten authors. It is humbling to come across an author whose work, for the most part, has been swept into the vast dusty penumbra of pen wielders. Authors who scratched away for years forming sentences and paragraphs, methodically building a body of work, a list of titles, letter by letter, creating a name and reputation which they hoped would have some lasting value, only to slip into the dark shadows of disinterest, and perhaps be only vaguely remembered for a best-selling and unworthy volume.
Moray McLaren (1901-1971) was unknown to me when I picked up three of his books in Montreal many years ago. In doing a bit of research on the author in those pre-internet days, I didn't come up with much. Even now I can't say I have enlarged on my knowledge. There is a such a thin veil of information about the author and his books, the questioning mind begins to wonder why. I am sure most booksellers know of the name and some of the titles, and probably have one or two in stock, but he seems to be one of those authors of his period--one of many perhaps--who is no longer relevant. His books are certainly available for purchase on various bookselling sites but in such great quantities--over 700 volumes on ABE-- that I could possibly conclude that the value of his writings was transitory, the works of their time and place.
He was to a certain degree, a younger contemporary with Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972), and he wrote an address for Mackenzie's eightieth birthday at a gathering at the Scottish Arts Club in Edinburgh. This was later published as a booklet of a few dozen pages: Compton Mackenzie: A Panegyric for his Eightieth Birthday (Edinburgh: Macdonald, 1963).
Dipping into his Stern and Wild: A New Scottish Journey (London: Chapman & Hall, 1948), I found him to be a good stylist, though perhaps dated in his attitudes, the following quote being one example: The one-man business of being a writer has been described as one of the only two professions that can be practised in bed. This is not strictly true. Writing in bed is possible but uncomfortable. (p. 26). Sounds like a joke from Jimmy Carr.
He was born in Edinburgh in 1901 and went to Corpus Christi, Cambridge for his degree. He was an assistant editor of The London Mercury, and The Listener, and was also with the BBC radio service, Scottish region where he wrote plays and broadcast talks. His involvement with the British Foreign Office during WWII led to his being in charge of the Polish Political Institute during the war years.
So he was a Scot who went south for his education and employment and ended up being a freelance writer after the war and garnering an OBE into the bargain. His Scottish brethren might have looked askance at his involvement with the English milieu, but he, like Compton Mackenzie, was a devoted Scot, writing many books on the subject. His first book, Return to Scotland: An Egoist's Journey (Duckworth, 1930) being the first of many. His second book, A Wayfarer in Poland (Methuen, 1934), must have led to his being appointed to the Polish Political Institute. I can imagine the conversations of Foreign Office types, wondering what chap could fill the position, and someone piping up with a tidbit about a friend of theirs having written a book about the country a few years ago. Good enough, sign him up. Images of Evelyn Waugh's William Boot in Scoop come to mind. Poland in the early 1930s, I can only imagine what he wrote. No doubt dated.
Two books of fiction followed after the war, a collection of short stories based on his radio work, A Dinner With the Dead and other Stories (Edinburgh: Serif Books, 1947), and a novel, Escape and Return (London: Chapman & Hall, 1947). This novel is described by Robert Eldridge as: "a dark portrait of an alcoholic writer in wartime Britain and his perilous recovery, all the more forceful for its lack of temperance moralizing or sensationalism. The first half is set in London, the second in Scotland, where the protagonist recovers with the help of sympathetic doctors and priests, finally regaining his Catholic faith along with his sobriety. The story contains hints of Satanic goings-on in London." On the inner flap of the dustwrapper this description is provided: "It is the story, in modern life, of demoniac possession and exorcism, rendered all the more striking for the fidelity with which the scene is constructed, lower Bohemian London during the air raids, a world of black magic, illicit drinking, war-weariness and work-weariness." Sounds like a book Colin Wilson might have read and enjoyed.
I have yet to dip into either of these books of fiction. Life is short. The novel, Escape and Return, however, has an inscription of interest and holds a certain charm. Located on the front free endpaper, and written in a fine hand with dark ink somewhat faded with time, the 46 year old author wrote the following:
Thank you for buying this book. You are the first who (as far as I know) has done so. I hope you won't be the last.
Considering that Moray McLaren did not continue writing fiction, I imagine his sales were not promising. Non-fiction became his area of concentration, mainly popular biographies and histories, books on fishing and wine as well, along with basic newspaper and magazine work.
His inscription in his first and only novel, is one that every author hopes will prove true. For some authors, however, trying to sell fiction is like playing croquet in the snow.
Addendum: Having only dipped into one of his books, I don't want to sound unkind in my judgements of his work. He may very well have been an excellent writer, friend, and associate to the many who knew him. It is also quite likely he was damn good at winter croquet.
Books by Moray McLaren:
Escape and Return, Chapman & Hall, 1947.
A Dinner With the Dead (stories), Serif Books, 1947.
Stern and Wild: A New Scottish Journey, Chapman & Hall, 1948.
"By Me...": A Report Upon the Apparent Discovery of Some Working Notes of William Shakespeare in a Sixteenth-Century Book (edited by Raymond Postgate), J. Redington, 1949.
A Small Stir: Letters on the English, Hollis & Carter, 1949.
The Capital of Scotland, Douglas & Foulis, 1950.
(Editor) The House of Neill, 1749-1949, Neill & Co., 1950.
The Capital of Scotland: A Twentieth-Century Contemplation on Edinburgh, Douglas & Foulis, 1950.
Stevenson and Edinburgh: A Centenary Study, Folcroft, 1950.
The Scots, Penguin, 1951.
(Editor of revision) Desmond Campbell Miller, Questions and Answers on Evidence, Sweet & Maxwell, 1951.
A Singing Reel, Hollis & Carter, 1953.
The Highland Jaunt: A Study of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson Upon Their Highland and Hebridean Tour of 1773, Jarrolds, 1954, W. Sloane, 1955.
Scotland in Colour, Batsford, 1954.
Understanding the Scots: A Guide for South Britons and Other Foreigners, Muller, 1956.
Lord Lovat of the '45: The End of an Old Song, Jarrolds, 1957.
The Pursuit, Jarrolds, 1959.
Fishing as We Find It (letters), Stanley Paul, 1960.
The Wisdom of the Scots: A Choice and a Comment, M. Joseph, 1961, St. Martin's, 1962.
If Freedom Fail: Bannockburn, Flodden, the Union, Secker & Warburg, 1964.
The Shell Guide to Scotland (edited by Yorke Crompton), Ebury Press, 1965,
Poland's Thousand Years: The Vanguard of Christendom, Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1965.
Pure Wine; or, In Vino Sanitas: A Centenary Celebration of, Quotation From, and Comment on Dr. Robert Druitt's Remarkable Book, "A Report on Cheap Wines, 1865," A. Campbell, 1965.
Corsica Boswell: Paoli, Johnson, and Freedom, Secker & Warburg, 1966.
Sir Walter Scott: The Man and the Patriot, Heinemann, 1970.
Bonnie Prince Charlie, Saturday Review Press, 1972.
The Fishing Waters of Scotland, J. Murray, 1972.
Scotland, Ebury Press, 1977.